News, Etc.: Enter The Athletic Buffalo

by / Jun. 19, 2018 8am EST

Move over, Buffalo News…there’s a new player in the local media market.

Less than a month after their last stories for the News, sportswriters Tim Graham and John Vogl have landed at the start-up local edition of The Athletic.

It really couldn’t have worked out much better for The Athletic.

The national online sports site’s business model focuses on swooping in to hire some of the best of a city’s sports journalists, then setting them free to focus on the biggest stories in the market.

The Athletic runs on subscriptions, with a basic subscription of $47.99 a year, although there are always sales.

So when the News started essentially pushing reporters and editors out the door last month via buyouts, it was perfect timing for The Athletic. It had already set up shop in 28 other cities around the US. Now there were recognizable, skilled reporters and columnists available.

Vogl had been covering the Sabres for almost 16 years, while Graham has covered the Sabres and Bills and has done some of the highest profile stories in the paper in recent years.

Graham’s O. J. Simpson interview was the paper’s most read story over the past 12 months. Vogl said in a tweet that before he left the paper he checked the analytics one last time and saw that he led “the entire paper in minutes read” and in people who clicked in from Twitter.

“The plan truly was to spend the summer relaxing on the water,” said Vogl. “Then I talked with @TheAthleticBUF. Here’s why I returned the paddleboard, bought a new laptop and started smiling.”

Graham tweeted, “You’re stuck with me, Buffalo. Stoked to announce I’m joining @TheAthleticBUF.”

The Athletic’s Buffalo start-up has no doubt been in the works for awhile, The initial staff goes beyond Graham and Vogl.

Also joining are:

  • Matthew Fairburn, who had covered the Bills for Syracuse.com, will be a staff writer.
  • Kris Baker, Sabres prospects guru of Sabresprospects.com, will be a contributor.
  • Ryan Stimson, hockey analytics specialist, will be a contributor.
  • Erik Turner, football draft specialist, will be a contributor.

What does all of this mean in the big picture?

Well, there’s a sports coverage war in the making. Look for some social media sniping going on between the News and The Athletic, maybe. The News still has the more extensive Bills coverage team, but The Athletic has the edge with the Sabres simply because most of the News’s hockey staff  cleared out when the paper did its buyouts in the past month, leaving Mike Harrington on his own.

Perhaps a bigger issue, though, is what gets covered.

The adage at the News for a long time was that you couldn’t give the readers too much coverage of the Bills and Sabres. They would simply read it and ask for more. That’s why the News usually prints about 20,000 more copies on the morning after a Bills game.

The Athletic knows that, so I would guess that its focus is going to be almost exclusively on the two big pro teams. There may be some moments when a local team is making an NCAA basketball tournament that an exception will be made, but I wouldn’t expect to see it often.

Meanwhile, the News has traditionally covered everything from high schools to Division III colleges to the Bisons to indoor lacrosse and women’s hockey. They’ve done local auto racing and bowling and running and racquet sports. It’s a long-term strategy that attempts to balance community coverage and long-term audience building with the high-impact items like the Bills and Sabres.

Power of the clicks

In this era of instant analytics, it’s easy to tell what is getting the clicks, and I could easily see the non-Bills and Sabres coverage being reduced.

There are echo effects for the other parts of the News, too. As newspapers become slave to the click, every coverage area will be affected. If it doesn’t get the clicks, don’t expect it to continue. And if writers don’t get the clicks, they’re going to feel the heat, too.   

In 2012, I attended the Newsplex Summer Seminar at the University of South Carolina, where Augie Grant and his team of academics and professionals attempted to spread the gospel of convergence journalism (it was still a somewhat new idea then).

One of the examples he used involved stories about two very similar building fires. One received perhaps a thousand views, while the other received close to 10,000. The future, he said, would involve looking at those stories to see what worked and what didn’t—and then trying to replicate the first.

That’s the world we’re now living in, where clicks are the determinant.

As of this writing, on The Athletic Buffalo’s first day (June 18), its Twitter page already had 4,910 followers, with more coming by the hour. How many will become paying customers? That isn’t likely to be made public, but they’ve debuted with a bang.

More changes

One test of the News’s commitment to covering high school sports will be if the paper replaces Corey Desiderio. Desiderio, who did much of the nuts-and-bolts high school coverage for the paper and also managed the sports department’s Twitter and Facebook pages, has left the paper. Desiderio, who had been with the paper since 2014, said on Twitter he was “pursuing opportunities outside of journalism.”

The News has also lost Dan Clark, who handled the PolitiFact stories out of Albany for the paper for the past two years. PolitiFact’s fact-checking stories have been a joint venture with the News. Clark left for a job with the New York Law Journal.

Data journalist Dan Kirchberger is also leaving the newsroom, but he’s just moving upstairs to the fourth floor to work with Brian Connolly, the vice president of business development and innovation. Connolly, the former managing editor of the paper, is also the publisher of the News’s community papers (Hamburg Sun, etc.) in addition to being the guy responsible for coming up with ways to save the publication

Elmer Ploetz is an associate professor at SUNY Fredonia, where he has taught journalism since 2008. He worked as a reporter and copy editor in sports and news at the Buffalo News from 1985 to 2008. He can be reached at  eploetzfredonia@gmail.com.